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Originally published Tuesday, January 21, 2014 at 8:08 PM

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Obama’s pot talk is a breath of fresh air

President Obama’s comparison of pot to alcohol marks a sea change in the tone of the drug debate.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Sometimes sea changes come so slowly that when they finally arrive, they barely make it into the news.

So it was the other day when President Obama, in a magazine interview, said that marijuana, long classified as one of our worst drugs, is really about the same as alcohol.

“As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice,” Obama said. “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

This story ran on page A6 of The Seattle Times. That’s probably because the implication of these words — that pot should be legalized, or at a minimum, decriminalized — has already been embraced by voters here. It’s another example of how the “change” president has spent his years mostly following big cultural changes, not leading them.

Still, that the president just declared a major plank of the War on Drugs to have been wrongheaded is big news. So big that his own Office of National Drug Control Policy hasn’t gotten the memo.

“The Administration steadfastly opposes legalization of marijuana and other drugs because legalization would increase the availability and use of illicit drugs, and pose significant health and safety risks to all Americans,” the drug czar’s website says.

Well, alcohol poses significant health and safety risks, too. It’s just not a crime to drink, which is the key distinction. Obama wasn’t encouraging pot use — at least to my ears. He was saying it makes no sense to treat people as criminals for it.

Why have we been doing so for 40-plus years?

I guess this all strikes me as a big deal because I came of age in the “Just Say No” time of zero, or little, tolerance. The hypocrisy of arresting 700,000 people a year for what most politicians themselves had probably done got so thick it led to that uncomfortable era of “urine-test journalism,” when we reporters would go around grilling politicians whether they’d ever smoked pot.

After youthful marijuana use felled a U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Douglas Ginsburg, in the late 1980s, it became a litmus-test question even in local politics. I remember a King County executive candidate, Bruce Hilyer, who later became a Superior Court judge, fumbling the question at a televised debate and staring flummoxed into the cameras. (He eventually admitted to smoking pot when he was younger, and went on to win the primary but lost the general election.)

Well now we have the president of the United States saying it probably should have been treated the same as, say, drinking vodka. So the anti-pot criminal crusade was a decades-long governmental mistake. Sorry about that!

Some critics are bashing Obama for encouraging nationwide dope smoking, but he was actually pretty negative about it, calling it “a waste of time and not very healthy.”

He also pointed out, correctly I think, that “the experiment taking place in Colorado and Washington is going to be a challenge.” Will pot use here rise? Maybe. Will there be more drug addiction or abuse? Will it spark a drive to legalize harder drugs? Obama raised the specter of that.

Right now my neighborhood is having some second thoughts about the experiment. A nearby corner, 23rd and Union, is zoned for pot shops, and, depending on licensing decisions, could end up with as many as half a dozen in one block. “Little Amsterdam,” some are calling it in protest.

But Obama’s alcohol comparison is apt. You wouldn’t want six liquor stores in a block, either, and we’ve figured out ways as a city to keep that from happening.

The experiment here might fail — such as if a lot more kids start smoking — and then we’ll have to try something else.

But for my entire life honest talk about the drug issue has seemed impossible, because of the hectoring, shaming stance of the government and hypocrisy of the lawmakers (remember “I didn’t inhale”?). It really is a big change now just to hear a different tone.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to His column runs Wednesday and Sunday. | 206-464-2086

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